Updated: Apr 4
The sport of baseball was once America’s “National Pastime.” Now it is less popular than the National Football League’s OFF-season.
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Major League Baseball (MLB) began its 2023 season on March 30th with all thirty teams paired off with either three- or four-game series. These have generated less sports fan interest than the upcoming annual NFL Draft, which will be held from April 27th-29th. When I was born, baseball was without question America’s most popular team sport, while pro football was less popular than the college game. Did pro football get better, or did baseball get worse? I submit that neither happened in a vacuum devoid of the other; rather, I think it useful to picture them as two kids on a seesaw– one got bigger while the other got smaller. But let’s leave the NFL’s six-decade explosion in popularity aside for now and focus on baseball’s self-inflicted wounds that are driving away viewership even as player salaries approach the upper ionosphere.
Baseball is, ultimately, a victim of itself– so historically bound to tradition that its few efforts to modernize have looked awkward and desperate; so conducive to cold-blooded statistical analysis that function has attained total supremacy over form. In other words, maybe if they had steadfastly left well enough alone instead of doing too little/too late from time to time, they’d probably be better off… and maybe they should also figure out a way to reward style.
Here’s a history of MLB's significant rule and structural changes during my lifetime–
1961– The American League expanded its schedule from 154 to 162 games. The National League followed suit a season later. Since play could not begin any earlier in the year, the season naturally pushed deeper into Autumn.
1969– In response to 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” when MLB’s conglomerate ERA was a minuscule 2.98, they lowered the pitching mound by 10” and shrunk the strike zone in an effort to generate more fan-friendly offense. Scoring went up, and games started getting longer.
Also in 1969– It might surprise many younger folks that prior to 1969 there were no playoffs! The best team in the American League squared off against the best team in the National League in the World Series, which always wrapped up before Columbus Day. In the most recent two seasons, the ever-expanding number of playoff teams pushed the conclusion of the Series past Halloween and into November.
It was neither a new rule nor a structural change, but the
1970 release of Jim Bouton’s understated masterpiece
BALL FOUR changed forever the public’s perception
of Major League Baseball and the men who play it.
1972– The United States Supreme Court handed down a 5-3 decision– and a pyrrhic victory for MLB owners– in the labor law case Flood v. Kuhn, preserving baseball’s notorious reserve clause for the time being but ultimately opening the door to free agency. (See more HERE about Curt Flood, the fantastic career he sacrificed, and the long-range effect of the courageous and lonely stand he took.)
1973– The Designated Hitter Rule was instituted in the American League, with a two-pronged purpose– it allowed weak-hitting pitchers to avoid embarrassing at-bats, and it also created a position for aging big-name batting stars to fill for a few extra seasons. Unintended consequences include eliminating complex and interesting substitution strategies (see “double-switch”) and, in a related story, shortening pitchers’ careers by leaving them in games longer.
1974– Jim “Catfish” Hunter, ace pitcher for the ‘72-’73-’74 World Series champion Oakland A’s, became MLB’s first-ever free agent. (Details HERE.)
Two decades before “moneyball,” my favorite team of all time-- the 1972-74 Oakland A’s-- dominated MLB with skill and swagger. By 1977, Free Agency had scattered their roster to the winds. (That’s Catfish Hunter in the middle of the bottom row.)
1987– The last daytime World Series game was played on October 24th. Fast-forward to the year 2022– All of the World Series games began at 8:03 PM EDT… and because the games ran from 3:13 to 4:34 in length, very few impressionable youngsters– i.e., the potential major-league fans of the future– were among the television viewership.
And, more significantly than everything else put together that ever happened to baseball–
1995– Oakland A’s owner Walter Haas Jr., died, and new owners Steven Schott and Ken Hoffmann directed General Manager Sandy Alderson to slash the team payroll. Alderson and his assistant Billy Beane figured out how to outsmart traditional baseball with statistical analysis– sabermetrics, a.k.a., MONEYBALL– to field a cost-effective team that could, quite simply, score more runs than their opponents by such boring methodologies as drawing more walks... at the cost of stripping Major League Baseball of much of its romance and entertainment value.
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Through all of the aforementioned changes, here’s what was once “America’s Pastime” has morphed into–
–Games that are so freaking long– with at-bats interminably prolonged by spitting, ball-scratching, and endless pickoff throws to first base– that MLB has felt the need to add CLOCKS.
–Applied sabermetrics has led to games with lots of strikeouts delivered by 100+ MPH flamethrowers… interspersed with the occasional towering home run, and with very little traditional baseball (singles, baserunning, strategy, etc.) in between.
–Player salaries are so astonishingly out of whack with the regular working folks that players are no longer the least bit “relatable.”
–And World Series games are now played on cold November nights way past the bedtimes of school-age kids.
Whether or not these evolutionary changes are to blame, baseball viewership and fan interest has been steadily declining… and MLB is finally taking notice. And so for the 2023 season we will see larger bases (to facilitate stealing), extra innings that begin with a runner on second, and clocks to speed up at-bats. Taken together, this package of untested innovations makes it seem like MLB is panicking. Will it work? No one can predict, of course. But if it doesn’t work, MLB will look desperate and foolish.
I know that they won’t work on me because, truth be told, I don’t watch ANY sports these days… I DO follow the NFL and listen to games while driving. But I have absolutely no use for baseball. My once-beloved Oakland A’s? I can’t name a single player on their 2023 roster.
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They don’t call me a Grumpy Old Mansplainer for nothing… I liked to watch boxing before MMA came along and ruined it; I liked PGA golf better when the players used dinky little putters and hit the cocktail lounge after each round instead of huddling with their teams of personal therapists; I liked NBA basketball better when there was no 3-point shot and big men (like Wilt Chamberlain) patrolled the paint with broad-shouldered authority; I liked the Olympics better before the USSR broke up; and I liked NASCAR better when they drove actual “stock” cars.
So I can dream, can’t I? Imagine if the game of baseball as we knew it in the year of my birth (1958) was considered as sacrosanct and immutable as Shakespearean theater… and every game of every season was conducted with total reverence for the traditional form and rituals– baggy pants, chewing tobacco, doctored baseballs and all. That is a style of baseball I could happily watch. But then I wake up and realize that freezing baseball in the amber of 1958 would make baseball akin to a colonial set-piece at Old Sturbridge Village, or even a Civil War battle reenactment… and I might not have very much company when I watch it.
Alas, everything evolves, including sports. The NFL tweaks its rules just a little every year, like fine-tuning a powerful machine for maximum performance without making drastic changes. Major League Baseball could learn a lot from the way the NFL has stolen their primacy.
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On the day this essay was published, we came across the new movie REGGIE, a rather unique and thoroughly engaging documentary about the life of Reggie Jackson, the superstar slugger of the '72-'74 A's and also the '77-'78 world champion N.Y. Yankees. HIGHLY recommended for its vintage footage as well as its insights into race relations.